The Iceman Cometh: Interview with Koni Steffen

As snow blankets much of the US and Europe this week, we thought we’d pass on some newly acquired knowledge about one form of ice—bound up in glaciers.

We learned these facts recently from renowned glaciologist Konrad (Koni) Steffen, Director of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL) in Switzerland and a Professor of both Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology, in Zurich (ETH) and in Lausanne (EPFL).

Steffen is known for his research on Arctic sea ice and the glaciers of Greenland, and how these are affected by Climate Change.

He recently stopped by swissnex San Francisco while in town for the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference. The big message at AGU, he says? Our climate is changing faster than previously believed and anticipated.

Steffen is an author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and a former Professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder for 25 years, where he led the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). He moved back to Switzerland two years ago.

Steffen conducts research every summer at the Swiss Camp weather station on the Greeland ice sheet, which he set up in 1990 to study temperature and ice variations. Visitors to the camp have included California Representative Nancy Pelosi and news anchor Anderson Cooper.

We asked the prolific scientist—he was the senior author on six published papers in 2014 and sleeps only five hours per night—about ice, glaciers, and climate change.

Koni Steffen

Q. How much ice is really being lost today?

A. For context, think of all the ice in Switzerland. That’s about 70 cubic kilometers of ice total. Greenland loses about 350 cubic kilometers of ice per year, the equivalent of 1mm global sea level rise. Switzerland, by the way, has lost 50 percent of its ice in the last 30 years.

Q. Is a glacier made up of solid ice?

A. Glacier ice is solid like any other ice – lake ice, sea ice, etc. Once the snow compresses to firn—the term for compressed snow—and then further to ice, the small air bubbles are reduced (compressed) and glacier ice become transparent (clear) like solid ice.

Q. Is it normal for glaciers to shrink?

A. Glaciers are in equilibrium with the surrounding climate conditions. If the climate becomes warmer, glacier ice melts more than is replaced by gravitational motion and hence shrinks. If there is more precipitation (colder climate), glaciers can grow in length and volume.

Q. Why do glaciers sometimes look blue, or even different colors?

A. Glacier ice looks blue because the sun’s radiation is scattered, and the largest scattering occurs at shorter wavelengths. The shortest wavelength is blue and therefore most of the blue rays are reflected and give the ice an appearance of blue.

Q. How fast do glaciers move?

A. This varies. Glaciers, or ice streams, can move up to 15 km per year, which is the case for Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier on the western slope of the Greenland ice sheet, the fastest moving glacier. The other extreme is that a glacier can move only a few centimeters per year if it has a very small volume.

Q. How many glaciers are there in the world?

A. The World Glacier Inventry (WGI) contains information for over 130,000 glaciers and we estimate there are about 200,000 glaciers worldwide.

Q. What tools/methods do you use to study glaciers?

A. Depends on the question. If we are interested in ice mass change, we measure the surface height change between years and this gives us a volume change.

If we want to know the change in length, we can use satellite data with a resolution of 0.5 m, or aerial photography. If we want to understand past climate, we use ice cores and analyze the air-bubbles in the ice, which give us proxy values of temperature in the past.

Q. Tell us about Swiss Camp.

A. It can hold about 10 scientists at a time and is completely wind and solar powered. After all, the sun is up 24 hours a day in Spring, Summer, and Fall. In general, the conversations are in this order of importance: food, weather, politics, and science (it’s always last). We also have really good food.

Q. What are you working on next?

A. We are installing new instruments on the Greenland ice sheet to measure the snow precipitation very accurately at several locations to monitor the change in mass – snow fall minus the melt.

We cannot measure at all locations on the ice sheet, so we will use models to predict for the entire ice sheet and for the future. Through studying the processes we understand how the ice sheet will respond to climate variability and change.

We also continue to support documentary movies like the one with a California Swiss-American artist about Swiss Camp, which will be released in the coming month.